Open Borders and the Golden Rule

Last year Pope Francis visited the United States and addressed Congress. A significant portion of his speech was devoted to how people should respond to immigrants. While not appealing for specific immigration policies, Pope Francis reminded his listeners that immigrants deserve to be treated humanely:

“… thousands of persons are led to travel north in search of a better life for themselves and for their loved ones, in search of greater opportunities. Is this not what we want for our own children? We must not be taken aback by their numbers, but rather view them as persons, seeing their faces and listening to their stories, trying to respond as best we can to their situation. To respond in a way which is always humane, just and fraternal. We need to avoid a common temptation nowadays: to discard whatever proves troublesome. Let us remember the Golden Rule: ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.’ This Rule points us in a clear direction. Let us treat others with the same passion and compassion with which we want to be treated. Let us seek for others the same possibilities which we seek for ourselves. Let us help others to grow, as we would like to be helped ourselves.”

Open borders supporters can highlight certain remarks that appear to support our cause, especially the sentence “Let us seek for others the same possibilities which we seek for ourselves.” For immigrants from developing countries to enjoy the same opportunities as people living in developed countries, they must be allowed to enter and remain in advanced countries. And it seems impossible to treat immigrants in a way that is “humane” and “just” under a policy of restrictions. (The group No One Is Illegal states that “the achievement of fair immigration restrictions… would require a miracle.”) At the same time, those opposed to open borders could reference a remark in the Pope’s speech (not quoted above) in which he states that the world refugee crisis “presents us with great challenges and many hard decisions.” One might infer that those decisions might involve accepting some migrants into destination countries and refusing others.

But what about the Golden Rule itself? Is it a foundation for open borders? One approach to the Golden Rule would seem to support open borders. Consider Bryan Caplan’s remark that all that we really owe strangers is to leave them alone. If this is applied universally, “Do unto others…” could mean that you wouldn’t have anyone block you from shopping, living, or working where you please, even if it’s in another country, so you shouldn’t interfere with others’ ability to do the same, regardless of their nationality. This seems to be what the Pope means when he says, “Let us seek for others the same possibilities which we seek for ourselves.”

The Golden Rule also could be seen as supporting a limited version of open borders. It would support open borders for citizens of countries with comparable economic prosperity. For example, Argentina, Chile, and Uruguay have roughly the same per capita GDP.  It would make sense that citizens of any one of these countries would have the other two countries allow them to migrate freely to those countries to pursue economic opportunities, so they should have open borders for citizens of the two other countries to enter their country.

However, the Golden Rule’s support for open borders could founder when applied to citizens of countries with wide economic disparities. This is because citizens of the Third World generally have much more to gain from moving permanently to the First World than citizens in the First World have to gain from moving permanently to the Third World. Citizens of developed countries, who generally have little desire to migrate to developing countries, probably wouldn’t have developing countries open their borders to them, especially if it meant they would have to, under the Golden Rule, reciprocate. Therefore, they wouldn’t be obligated to open their borders to citizens from developing countries. For example, most Canadians likely would be okay with Bangladeshis telling them that they couldn’t migrate to Bangladesh, so Canadians wouldn’t have to open their borders to Bangladeshis. On the other hand, most Bangladeshis probably would have Canada open its borders to them, so they would have to open their borders to Canadians. This difference in perspective reflects a weakness that others have noted about the Golden Rule: the difficulty of applying it to “differences of situation.

Pope Francis’ comments about treating immigrants with compassion are inspiring. However, I disagree that the Golden Rule “points us in a clear direction” about how to respond to immigration. It is too malleable to provide a moral foundation for immigration policy.

Joel Newman

Joel has a bachelor’s degree in history from Pomona College and works as a teacher in Beaverton, Oregon.

See also:

our blog post introducing Joel
all blog posts by Joel

3 thoughts on “Open Borders and the Golden Rule”

  1. Hi Joel. Nice post.

    I have always interpreted “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” to mean that you should imagine flipping circumstances with the person you are acting upon, and *not* to mean “what are some rules that sound like universals but which benefit me in my current situation?”

    For instance, once Hitler became chancellor of Germany, he might have believed that chancellors should have unlimited power to kill whomever they want. According to your loose interpretation, this would not violate the Golden Rule because Hitler doesn’t have to imagine himself among the victims. He just has to state the rule as a universal, a property about chancellors, and wouldn’t you know it, he just so happens to be a chancellor.

    But if the loose interpretation is correct, then the Golden Rule does no work since a person could always come up with universal-sounding language that is self-serving. So I think that my stricter interpretation is the only one that makes sense.

  2. Interesting article on the Golden Rule and free movement.

    You hit the nail on the head Joel with your closing thoughts about the rule being too difficult to implement for immigration. In an ideal world, it would be great to have free movement. But it’s unrealistic as equality of world economies is never going to happen.

    Britain and France currently have the problem of immigrants camped at Calis, wanting to enter the UK.

    They are already in a first world country yet they are desperate to get to the UK. So desperate they are willing to risk life and limb.

    The main reason has to be the benefits system in the UK otherwise, they’d stay in France. Obviously many in the UK will argue, why should we share the resources we’ve worked hard to create for with someone who’s contributed nothing.

  3. “Citizens of developed countries … probably wouldn’t have developing countries open their borders to them, especially if it meant they would have to, under the Golden Rule, reciprocate.”
    No, the Golden Rule (at least in the form quoted by Francis) isn’t about reciprocity. It doesn’t say “do to others what they do to you”. Nor does it say “do good to others so that they will do good to you”. It says “do to others what you would want them to do to you”, unqualified by whether or not you think they’ll reciprocate.

    So to me, the pertinent question is this: Do you want others to threaten force against you, in order to restrict your choices about where you travel, where you live, and where you work?

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